Gary Raymond looks ahead to this week’s Llais festival as the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff.
Wales Millennium Centre has a marketing budget and it knows how to use it. Perhaps… just perhaps… the targeted advertising riding the algorithmical tide into my eyes and ears is different to yours, but I barely go a day without seeing several ads for the ambitious WMC Llais Festival (neé Festival of Voice). It’s nice to see an arts organisation in Wales launch a publicity push that looks, smells, and feels like the big bucks campaigns coming out of the better-funded English city venues. WMC continues to be a shining beacon for admirers of “things done properly”.
A shame the new logo looks like it’s been snatched from Canva, but all in all, Llais is being pitched as simultaneously cutting edge and somewhere in the area of just-off-off-mainstream; that thing that 6Music has managed over the years, of being entirely establishment whilst thinking of itself as alternative. Is WMC aiming to be Wales’ South Bank Centre, with Llais becoming its annual Meltdown? You’ll hear few complaints if it is. Many of the top acts from Llais/Festival of Voice since it started up in 2016 would be names that have that Meltdown vibe – from Elvis Costello to John Cale to Ronnie Spector to my own personal favourite Susan Sundfør. Llais could be the best way for Welsh audiences to see acts like without traipsing over to Bristol for the foreseeable*.
The 2023 programme is a little more low-key than previous years – no big legend headliner – but the joy of Llais in the past has often been the second-tier anyway. Sundfør, for instance, who is still relatively unknown outside of her native Norway, played to a half-filled New Theatre in 2018 and blew the place away with her soul-bearing songs and Olympian vocals. So, whereas 2023 offers no marquee names as such, the programme does suggest a carefully curated vision. Bat For Lashes stands out, perhaps, as the act most likely to elicit mumbles of “is she still going”? It feels a long time since her Mercury-nominated debut album Fur and Gold (2003) turned heads, but there’s a sneaking suspicion that the “nightcreeper” live vibe might be worth more than a passing curiosity. Richard Dawson will keep an army of beardy musos very happy indeed; The Staves will equally bring in some dedicated fans of serious music; The Big Moon are up-and-comers that could well be the “I was there” pull of this year’s festival. But one of the things I like about Llais is the off-the-wall stuff it pulls together. In the tradition of the Festival Hall festival, Llais likes to match up artists, hang them on a hook, and see what happens.
This year we have a tribute to Joni Mitchell, and the terrifying prospect of Charlotte Church doing “A Case of You”. In truth, these sorts of tributes (bread and butter for the Festival Hall crowd) throw up just has many car crashes as they do moments of awe and wonder, and it’s not so easy to predict which will be which. Georgia Ruth, Laura Mvula and ESKA all sound ready made for the rich tapestries of Mitchell’s oeuvre, but to be honest, it’s Church I want to hear doing it.
There are plenty of other intriguing delights – James Yorkston and Nina Pearsson doing their thing; an “all-dayer” with The Unthanks (two performances and a Q&A), and something promising the merging of Indo-Pakistani dance with flamenco. There is also a live orchestration of Mike Jenkins’ uber-boring follow-up to his excellent Bait, Enys Men**, that seeks to lift the pretentious mundanity to a level approaching, I assume, entrancing spectacle***.
Kicking it all off on the Tuesday though is a big event that has been struggling to finds its footing on the annual awards calendar: the Welsh Music Prize. Having it on the opening night of Llais, if that is to continue (this is not the first time they’ve done it this way, if memory serves) is a wise thing, and if both can go on in this age of uncertainty, the marriage will do both award and festival some mutual good. As for the awards itself, the shortlist balances the desire to shine a light on the best of Welsh contemporary music of the last twelve months and an awareness that at some point a shortlist remains a long list. Fifteen albums is a lot, no doubt about that. My Welsh album of the year so far has been Rogue Jones’ Dos Bebes (so that’s the kiss of death for them, then – sorry guys), and my least favourite is undoubtedly John Cale’s Mercy (so that’ll win, hands down). Whatever the outcome, it’s a good move to open a festival like Llais with a celebration.
I wrote several years ago how a festival like this needs time to bed in and finds its own identity, and the new name might have been the final piece in that jigsaw. Festival of Voice had the ignominy of sounding both pretentious and thin. Llais has a real identity to it, and an identity is what a festival really needs.
*the author fully acknowledges the brilliant work of new live venues such as Cardiff’s Tramshed who have resurrected the idea that bands should come to Wales.
** the author fully acknowledges he has long given up suffering the genre he used to call “film-as-puzzle”.
*** the author remains sceptical of the prospect.